Arthur W. Page Society

Once Again, The Powerful, The Famous and the Merely Influential Gather in Davos

This week, media spotlight will be focused on Davos, a Swiss ski resort which 100 years ago served as a high-altitude spa for wealthy people with weak lungs.

Leaders from business, government, academia and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will spend long days networking and debating at the 44th World Economic Forum (WEF) in  Davos, which at 1,560 meters (5,100 feet) is the highest city in Europe.

Cynics say the WEF is purely for show. The powerful, the famous and the merely influential gather. There is a content-rich program but no real agenda. No broad decisions are made by the 2,500 or so participants, who if they are corporate officers are present mainly because their organizations can afford the 40,000 dollars or so it costs for each of them to take part.

But, as someone who used to attend (when I worked for a company, ABB, which saw Davos as a rich, and time-saving, business networking opportunity), I can only agree with Richard Edelman, who in a blog last week said the cynics are wrong.

In a blog last week, Richard explained that the WEF matters because “Davos forces you out of your comfort zone.”

While CEOs and heads of state get preferential treatment, “at the luncheons or dinners, during the cocktail parties or coffee breaks, there is no hierarchy, just manic speed conversation that forces total attention.”

“You are invited because you are intelligent and successful. You are expected to contribute to the discussion. You are obliged to think, deeply and quickly. There are no rest periods because everybody you encounter is at the top of the game,” Richard said.

Davos is a yearly litmus test of what’s on the mind of global elites, even though many of them blush at the sight of the WEF’s mission: “committed to improving the state of the world.”

This year’s meeting title, “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business”, shows that the elites are clearly worried. A timely survey published by the WEF shows that they are worried with good reason. More than 700 global experts surveyed said the chronic gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens as the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade. The survey points to four threats that could impact global stability in the next five to 10 years:

  1. Emerging market uncertainties, whereby the world’s major emerging markets become unstable as a result of social, political or economic pressure
  2. Commercial and political frictions between countries, where trade and investment become increasingly used as a proxy for geopolitical power, with increased flashpoints as a result
  3. Proliferation of low-level conflict, caused by technological change and reluctance of major powers to intervene, which could easily spill over into full-scale warfare
  4. Slow progress on global challenges, where persisting deadlock in global governance institutions leads to failure to adequately address environmental and developmental challenges that are truly global in nature

These threats will have a bearing on how we as CCOs and public relations counselors help the companies we serve navigate in the decade to come.

Short-term, the risk for deep economic crises are low, according to the US economist Nouriel Roubini, who forecast the 2008 collapse of the US housing market which triggered the Great Recession.

But, he says in a recent article, “the outlook for 2014 is dampened by longer-term constraints as well. Indeed, there is a looming risk of secular stagnation in many advanced economies, owing to the adverse effect on productivity growth of years of underinvestment in human and physical capital. And the structural reforms that these economies need to boost their potential growth will be implemented too slowly.”

What will the “outcome” be at Davos? Is creeping fatalism over things being out of control at the core of the meeting’s title this year: “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business”? The next couple of days will show how Davos 2014 evolves.

But a few things can already be predicted, simply on the basis of experience.

For all participants, many new contacts will have been made. If they attend the odder sessions – and seek out those outside their comfort zone – they will also have gained new insights in areas that can be surprisingly helpful.

The CEOs I worked for at ABB said the days in Davos saved them three or four months of travel, by holding pre-arranged one-on-one meetings with customers, suppliers, government officials and NGO leaders.

For the attending PR professionals, besides privileged “boss time” if you’re the Sherpa of your CEO at the general conference, rubbing shoulders with leading media can be the best take-away. I usually had at least a half dozen possible story leads – and plenty of new ideas for the company narrative – and new press and NGO contacts after each WEF.


Bjorn Edlund
Chairman Europe & CIS Edelman

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